Catharsis, Emotional Manipulation, and Transcendence

This past weekend my husband and I saw the film Les Miserables. Since it’s based on my very favorite musical, I was both excited and anxious, being (as I’ve mentioned before) highly, irrationally protective of things I love when they’re being adapted. Well, I was generally pleased with the results, though I certainly didn’t hesitate to complain to my husband about any tiny thing that didn’t meet my approval. What I wanted to write about today, however, is not the problems inherent in adapting a musical into a film, or the themes of the play and how they come across in film form, or anything specific to Les Mis, as interesting as that would be. I wanted to discuss more generally the types of stories that make us cry.

Yes, the movie made me cry, as I expected it would. And it appears it had a similar effect on many others. What I find interesting and somewhat problematic is when people express their bewilderment over enjoying something so much when it makes them so sad. Well, I believe that calling Les Miserables “sad” is an over-simplication. I’ll get to that more in a moment.

But the fact is, we do like experiencing sad stories. Why? Let’s go back to the Greek (though not exclusive to ancient Greece!) concept of catharsis. Experiencing a deep emotion vicariously, by witnessing its occurrence among fictitious characters, results in a sense of release, of relief, perhaps even pleasure. I’m not speaking of some sort of sadistic enjoyment in watching others suffer. We experience catharsis only when we empathize with the characters on a deep personal level – when we identify with their suffering as if we are suffering ourselves. But then, when the tale is over and we have shed our tears, we can pull back to reality and away from the vicarious pain. It can be a way to process the pain in our own lives by seeing it in metaphor rather than having to deal with its cold ugly real-ness. Catharsis can be good.

But it can be faked – elicited in a manner that is off-putting at best and downright manipulative at its worst. Tears mean lots of different things depending on the culture. Sadness, joy, shame, fear, even spiritual experiences. So something that makes us cry can be mistaken for something that it’s not. A piece of shoddy emotional manipulation that throws arbitrary tragedy after tragedy upon the protagonist might draw out tears from the audience – but are those tears rightfully earned? Do they do anything other than create a false sense of powerful emotional impact? This isn’t an easy question to answer, particularly for writers who want to be genuine but can’t seem to escape accusations of being manipulative or heavy-handed or ham-fisted. It takes a delicate touch. It takes practice.

And the fact is, there is a market for stories that just plain make us cry. I’m reminded of the Story Club Anne and her friends create in Anne of Green Gables. They only want to write tragic stories because in their minds, those are the best kind – stories that make them howl and sob and go through handkerchief after handkerchief. Is it catharsis? Mmmm….probably not. And probably not healthy to fixate on for any long period of time, but perhaps it’s a natural stage of reading preferences. Heaven knows that movies based on Nicolas Sparks novels are insanely popular. They don’t work for me, but they clearly work for a lot of other people.

So what about Les Miserables? For me, it is more than a sad story, more than a means for powerful catharsis. This includes the book (which I admittedly haven’t read since high school) as well as the musical and the film. The story is more than a collection of tales of miserable people, title notwithstanding. It is more than “he/she suffered horribly, then died,” though that motif certainly recurs a great deal. The message is fundamentally a religious one, that of a greater hope, a greater peace and a greater joy than can be obtained by any earthly means. Characters like Enjolras try and fail to enact a great change upon the world through fighting and force. But where does lasting change come from? Love. Unconditional, all-encompassing, perfect compassion. Jean Valjean strives for this from the moment he decides to change his life and leave his hatred behind, and he lives and dies in peace. Yes, it’s sad to see him die, and I cried plenty, but it’s not tragic. It’s beautiful and transforming. These are the stories that I gravitate toward the most. After they’ve brought me to weepy sadness, they lift me up to transcendent joy – not the sort of naive happiness that ignores the existence of suffering, but the ability to look in the very face of pain and hate and wrong and say, “I still hope. There is a flame that never dies.” Of course transcendence is an awful lot to ask of a book or movie or musical. I don’t expect it with everything I read or watch. But the ones that do achieve it are definitely my favorites. And I have hopes of someday creating something like that myself.